James Paradis

Rocky Mountain Rubber Match: What to Expect from Broncos-Chargers III

Created on Jan. 10, 2014 2:50 PM EST

This Sunday, the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers — longtime AFC West rivals — will meet in the playoffs for the first time. Although this marks a postseason milestone between the two clubs, they are anything but unfamiliar with one another — this weekend’s contest will mark their third meeting this year, and 109th meeting all-time.

Rightfully so, the streaking Chargers head to Denver this round with confidence and bragging rights as the only team to leave Mile High victorious in the regular season since The Sherriff, Peyton Manning, came to town two seasons ago. Denver, on the other hand, is reeling from a string of defensive injuries and illnesses, including the recent loss of Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller, adding pressure on their offense to perform at its highest level against the Chargers’ well-rounded air and ground attack.

Looking back at their two regular-season meetings offers a glimpse into what we can expect on Sunday, although it’s clear that the San Diego team coming to town this week is markedly improved in just about every area since the clubs first met in early November. In Week 10, San Diego was relatively competitive (a 28-20 Denver win), at least compared to Denver’s typical shellacking of opponents this season with an absurd average margin of victory of more than 17 points. After Denver stormed to a 28-6 lead heading into the fourth quarter, the Chargers were able to pull within one score with 10 minutes to go, though neither team scored for the remainder of the game. Then, when the teams met again five weeks later, San Diego unveiled a formidably balanced and effective offense, flaunting their much-improved run game and notching two scores from red-hot rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen. Thwarting a fourth-quarter Denver surge, the Chargers were unexpectedly able to flex their defensive muscles, forcing a key three-and-out with less than six minutes to go, and then held on for a 27-20 triumph. The Chargers have been on a mission ever since and hope to continue their surprising run this weekend.

So what can we expect in this postseason rubber match with a trip to the AFC Championship game on the line?

San Diego will likely attempt to replicate elements of its blueprint from Week 15, when they were remarkably dominant in one particular capacity: time of possession. San Diego boasted a nearly 2:1 ratio controlling the ball in that game, typically an area of strength for this Broncos team (except in Week 10 when the Bolts again held Manning to a measly 22 minutes with the ball). In fact, the Chargers possessed the ball more than any other team in the NFL in 2013, a feat greatly attributed to their ability to also convert the most third downs in the league, per the Elias Sports Bureau.

Keeping the ball in Philip Rivers’ hands is San Diego’s greatest key to success because, obviously, it keeps the ball out of the hands of the player who spent the past season shattering seemingly every record in the history of quarterbacking. In Week 15, the Chargers were able to hold Manning’s offensive juggernaut to a season low in points, nonetheless against a pass defense ranked among the worst in the league. This week, Manning faces a much-improved defensive unit that recently reintegrated 2013 first-round draft pick OLB Melvin Ingram into the starting lineup, building upon an aggressive pass rush that is also getting big contributions from San Diego’s other 2013 D-line draft selection, Kendall Reyes. If San Diego can limit Manning’s drives, and in doing so keep its defense fresh, Sunday’s game could end up being another relatively low-scoring, close battle.

Last month’s home loss aside, Denver is still considered the heavy favorite in this divisional round matchup, and deservedly so. San Diego may be riding a five-game win streak with all signs pointing toward a competitive contest, but there are few out there who would be shocked by a multi-touchdown blowout win for the Broncos. If the Broncos are running on all cylinders in front of a fired-up home crowd that has spent the last year trying to repress nightmares starring an outstretched Rahim Moore, there may be no stopping Manning and Co. With Wes Welker returning to the field -- having not played since suffering a concussion in Week 14 against the Titans -- Manning will once again have his full offensive arsenal at his disposal. If the O-line can protect its leader long enough to expose mismatches against the porous San Diego secondary, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the 20-point total Denver posted in Week 15 could be doubled.

With questions of legacy on the line and a chance for redemption after last year’s home-field heartbreaker, expect to see a laser-focused Manning take the field Sunday afternoon at Mile High. He would likely love nothing more than to continue his campaign to silence the critics and move forward to next week’s AFC Championship, inevitably featuring a rematch against one of the two other teams that defeated Denver this year: his old team or his longest-standing rival. Could Hollywood possibly have scripted anything sweeter? Get the popcorn and candy ready.
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